Richard Downes has been searching his entire life for closure after his father Hal Downes, a former All-American goalie with the University of Michigan, never returned home from the Korean War.
After President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed on June 12, during a historic summit in Singapore, to recover the remains of the U.S. military personnel missing in action and presumed dead from the war, Downes and other families whose loved ones are still MIA are hopeful that, almost 68 years later, their remains will soon be returned to U.S. soil.
“We work very hard with a lot of organizations and other people to get the recovery of the MIAs issues on the agenda,” said Richard Downes, the executive director of the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs. “It was not only on the agenda, we got it in the agreement. That is pretty cool.
“Now it is just words on paper and a pledge between these two men. We need to see something to happen next, which isn’t always the case. It is always measured with relations with these two country and in particular these two men in charge because they are known for their unpredictability, so we will see. It has been a long time since we’ve had this progress even on paper, though.”
Downes understands there is a long way to go before he might have closure, but he is encouraged by the progress. On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that U.S. military command in South Korea is preparing to receive the remains of an unknown number of soldiers from North Korea.
It’s been more than a decade since North Korea turned over the remains of American troops missing from the Korean War.
There are 7,697 U.S. troops still unaccounted for from the war, and about 5,300 of those were lost in North Korea, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Downes, who grew up in California but now lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, said he has been told North Korea may have the remains of more than 200 American service members that were likely recovered from land during farming or construction and could be easily returned.
“They could start shipping them out tomorrow,” he said. “But then you have thousands of others whose remains are spread out on battlefields and throughout North Korea.
“The second part of agreement was to reinitiate joint operations where we send experts in to go battle fields where there were a lot of losses. That is going to take some time.”
In 1952, Air Force Lt. Hal Downes’ B-26 Marauder went down after the plane’s engines stopped working during a bombing mission over North Korea.
Two crew members were able to escape before then getting captured behind enemy lines (they were later released), while the fate of Downes and another airman remain a mystery.
For Richard and his family, it is a question that may never be answered.
“We wonder why he didn’t get out of the plane,” said Richard, who was 3 when his father went MIA. “Two guys did get out. Speculation is he might not have known the plane wasn’t going done. He was a responsible guy. Those planes aren’t always easy to get out of when you’re in trouble.
“Everything about him indicates that he would have been one to get out of the plane, unless he didn’t know it was going down. That, unfortunately, is one thing we may never know is why he went down with the plane.”
Richard has agonized over his father’s disappearance for the past 66 years, but the stories he has heard about Hal have been touching, he said.
Hal volunteered for World War II in 1943 when he was 18 or 19, Richard said, and was in the Army Air Corps as a navigator bombardier.
By the time he completed his training, the war was over.
Hal, who remained in the Army Reserve, then married Elinor Downes and decided to start a family. Hal went to Michigan, where he won a national championship in 1951, graduated and was hired Kaiser-Frazer Corporation.
On his first day at the job, Elinor called Hal and told him he had been recalled to Korea.
“His comment was he hadn’t even sharpened his pencil yet,” Richard said. “I don’t know if he was all that upset about going, though. He had different responsibilities (than when he volunteered for WWII), but I think he always had that sense of wanting to serve. I think part of him was frustrated he never got to be a part of that effort.”
Hal’s legacy still lives on at Michigan. The Hal Downes Trophy is awarded every year to the team’s Most Valuable Player. Richard’s sister, Donna Knox, and Elinor had the opportunity to present the award in 1998 to goalie Marty Turco, who played four years with the Wolverines and won two national championships.
“We didn’t know for a long time,” Richard said of the award, which was given in his father’s name for the first time in 1956. “When we found out, we were quite honored. He loved hockey and played it all his life. He had that one great year with the championship team. I don’t remember it but I heard about it all my life. It has been very important to have that to be a part of his legacy, and I know he was very proud of it I’m sure.”
Earl Keyes, Hal’s teammate in 1951, said the naming the MVP award in his honor was well-deserved.
“He was always jovial and friendly in the dressing room,” Keyes said. “He enjoyed life and his family. He was a dedicated teammate. That year, he was the only goalie we had, so we had to keep him healthy.”
When moving from California to Portsmouth in 2010, Richard returned to Ann Arbor for the first time since his father went missing. He finally was able to put visuals to the anecdotes he has heard about Hal.
Mickey Grant, the wife of the late Wally Grant, an All-American forward for the Wolverines in 1946 and 1948-50, took Richard on a tour of the city, including showing him the apartment on Hill Street where his parents used to live.
“My mom told me, to earn extra money, my dad did a lot of things around campus,” Richard said. “One was hand out programs during football games. She said he would get so excited about the football games that he would be shaking.”
The most meaningful moment to Richard, though, was when he flew to North Korea in 2016 for a trip organized by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to search for remains.
Downes said the group flew over the area where his father’s plane is believed to have crashed.
“That was pretty special for me to be that close to him,” he said.
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